Starting Point of the July, 1967 Racial Riot

9125 Twelfth Street at the corner of Twelfth and Clairmount


Early on Sunday morning July 23, 1967; Detroit police raided a "blind pig" at this location expecting to find a few people violating the law by drinking in an unlicensed establishment. When they entered around 3 AM they discovered a crowd of 60 or more celebrating the return of servicemen from Vietnam. Police officers held the arrested individuals on 12th street for some time before police wagons took them away for booking and then their release. Thus began Detroit's fourth and largest racial riot.

As the arrested people were held on 12th street, young men came to the area and yelled and hollered at the police. This crowd continued to mill around after the police left. About 7:50 AM on Sunday morning, the rock and bottle throwing became intense and Detroit authorities immediately realized that a riot might be developing similar to the one that devastated Newark one month earlier and extremely violent Los Angeles racial riot of the previous summer. Mayor Cavanaugh immediatly warned his friend, Vice-president Humphrey. By 8:30 AM, arson was reported. On the basis of their very successful experience with the Kerchaval mini riot of August, 1966, Detroit police assembled a large number of officers in riot gear and marched them down 12th to disperse the crowd. It took the police until mid-Sunday morning to muster their personnel. This massive display of police power dispersed the crowd on 12th street but did not stop the looting and arson. Rioters eluded the police by running into back yards or alleys. By noon, the first strike effort of the police had failed and the riot was spreading throughout the African American neighborhoods bounded, roughly by West Grand Boulevard, the Lodge Freeway, Davison and Livernois. The police had no second strike strategy. Indeed, on Sunday afternoon many officers believed they had been told to establish a perimeter around the riot, allow all persons to leave even when in possession of looted goods but allow no one to enter. It proved impossible to keep people out. Rioting and arson gradually spread though out much but not all of the city. On Sunday afternoon, the police arrested few riot participants fearing that the use of force would escalate the violence. Potential riots quickly learned of the policy of "tolerance."

The situation deteriorated. Early on Sunday evening, middle-class blacks and leaders of the black community apparently went to the Mayor and police leaders and demanded that they crack down hard on the rioters. Black leaders saw their neighborhoods at risk of complete destruction while the police just stood by. By Sunday evening the fire department ceased going into the riot area since they were attracted when they tried to extinguish blazes. At some point on Sunday evening, police officers were told to arrest as many rioters as they could using whatever force and violence was required. This approach continued for several days and several thousand were arrested This overwhelmed the judicial system so, by the end of the week, most were released without being prosecuted for any of their crimes.

In the riots of this era, the state police were the first to be mobilized, then the state National Guard and, finally, the US Army. The state police came to Detroit early on Sunday. Governor Romney ordered the National Guard to move toward Detroit on Sunday but was reluctant to assign them to Detroit's streets, apparently believing that their deployment would invalidate insurance policies since they do not cover losses due to wars or insurrections. On Sunday evening suburban mayors apparently convinced the Governor that militant blacks might come to their suburbs to loot and burn. At that point, Governor Romney dispatched the Michigan National Guard to Detroit. This was a tragic mistake. These men were almost exclusively white, were extremely poorly trained and were so frightened by being in the riot area that they used massive fire power leading to excessive deaths.

Rioting continued throughout Sunday evening and Monday morning. Early on Monday, President Johnson ordered that paratroopers who had served in Vietnam but had also been trained for urban riot duty be forwarded from Maxwell in Alabama to Selfridges Field and then he ordered them to the State Fairgrounds at 8 Mile and Woodward. He did not want to send them to the streets of Detroit. President Johnson ordered a retired general—Throckmorton—to drive the streets of Detroit throughout Monday reporting almost constantly to the President about the likelihood that the city police, the state police and the Michigan National Guard could contain the riot. For some part of the afternoon, it looked as if the riot might be contained. With National Guardsmen at their sides, firefighters returned to the riot area but Detroit was covered with a thick pall of acrid smoke. Indeed, many people in Detroit that day assumed that entire city was being destroyed by fire for a second time. Early in the evening, in a speech that I remember well, President Johnson spoke by television to Detroiters encouraging them to keep the peace. After dusk, the looting and arson increased and officials recognized that the destruction of Detroit was possible. President Johnson order the racially integrated federal paratroopers to the streets about 11:20 PM. In a fortuitous and fateful decision, General Throckmorton decided that the Michigan National Guard would patrol Detroit west of Woodward while the federal troops would take Detroit east of Woodward. Almost immediately, the massive presence of trained federal troops—who patrolled with unloaded guns—established calm on the east side. On the West Side, the Michigan National Guardsmen enforced a very bloody type of peace using extreme force; that is, using military vehicles and firing off hundreds of rounds. Officially, the National Guardsmen had been told to patrol with unloaded weapons but, apparently, most of them did not follow those orders and so shot frequently since many believed that snipers were shooting at them.

By Tuesday evening, the riot was winding down. Excessive military force on the west side and an even-handed military presence of the east side restored some degree of calm. By Wednesday, the city began to slowly get back to normal. Forty three including the four additional black men killed at the Algiers Motel on the Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. The first death occurred late on Sunday night as a merchant shot a person looting his store. The last death occurred on Thursday morning when a deaf man apparently walking to work did not obey a police order to halt and was shot. 18 of the deaths resulted from shots fired by the Detroit police. Of these 14 were looters: 12 black looters and 2 whites. 6 were killed by the Michigan National Guard including one Guardsmen accidentally killed by another Guardsmen. Five were killed by either the National Guard or by Detroit police officers. Three were killed by private citizens, two were killed by shop owners protecting their property. Two died as a result of fires and two were killed by power lines. In an exhaustive study of the mortality, the Detroit Free Press (September 3, 1967), concluded that the majority of death should not have occurred, rather they resulted from the ambiguous or excessive use of gun fire by the Detroit Police and the Michigan National Guard.

There were three popular explanations for the Detroit riots and other racial riots of the 1960s:

Black militants were thought to be traveling the country encouraging young African American men to arms themselves and militantly protect black neighborhoods against white oppressors using whatever force was necessary. Through the Detroit riot, the police and National Guard received many reports of snipers. Subsequent investigations failed to document the presence of any snipers. Many assumed that lax policing permitted a ne'er do well element of the black—and sometimes neighborhood—white community run amok primarily by looting stores and then burning them. Looting was rampant on Sunday afternoon July 23 and the Detroit police did little to stop.

Some others assumed that the continued economic oppression and geographic isolation of blacks an era dedicated to civil rights created a cauldron of animosity in the blacks community, a cauldron that boiled over into rioting when the largely white police force arrested and sometimes manhandled many young black men.

There are many tangible and intangible effects of the racial violence that occurred in Detroit during the summers of the 1960. One of the most tangible and forceful results was the report of the Commission to study the riot appointed by President Johnson. The Kerner Commission, in 1968, argued that unless federal and local policies regarding race and cities were drastically altered, in many metropolitan areas a rather poor minority population would be confined to central cities that would be surrounded by a much more prosperous and almost exclusively white suburban ring. They more or less accepted the third explanation given above. Another major change was that the federal military began to train and control state national guards. Many of the officers of the Michigan National Guard left their post shortly after the disastrous performance of the National Guard in Detroit.

Location of starting Point of Riot of July 23, 1967. Intersection of 12th Street and Clairmont. 12th street was subsequently renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard. The stores and homes that were along 12th at the time of the riot were torn down and replaced with some public housing, a modest shopping center and a tiny and now ill kept park.

Sculptor: There is no "official" monument or historical marker to designate the starting point of the Detroit's most violent riot. There is a modest sculpture in the small park now found at Rosa Parks Boulevard and Clairmont. I believe that this was put in place without any support from or approval of any city agency. Jack Ward designed the sculpture. In the summer of 2016, the City of Detroit announced that $17 million would be available to renovate neighborhood parts. In that summer work began on a project to expand nearby Gordon Park to include the corner of Clairmount and Twelfth Street where the violence of late July, 1967 began

Description updated: July, 2017


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